BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
The Travelodge motel in Palo Alto has been hit with a lawsuit from Scott Johnson, a quadriplegic attorney who has sued hundreds of California businesses over violations of disability access law.
The suit demands tens of thousands of dollars in damages for violations found in the two-star motel’s $150 guest rooms and parking lot at 3255 El Camino Real.
Johnson says the lot only has one parking space reserved for those with disabilities where two are required, and the space’s access aisle isn’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair-accessible van.
The space also isn’t marked with signs bearing the international symbol of accessibility logo or “Minimum Fine $250” or “NO PARKING,” according to Johnson.
The motel’s wheelchair-accessible guest rooms only have one bed, Johnson claims, and aren’t “dispersed among the various classes of sleeping accommodations available to patrons.”
California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, a 59-year-old anti-discrimination law, awards successful plaintiffs at least $4,000 per violation. Johnson said in his June 19 suit filed in U.S. District Court that he visited the motel 10 times between February 2017 and March 2018.
Assuming he encountered a violation during each of his 10 visits, he could claim $40,000 in damages on top of attorney fees.
Suits such as Johnson’s also cite the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA, but that federal law doesn’t call for the payment of damages, according to Rick Morin, a Sacramento attorney who represents businesses hit by these lawsuits. Morin is not involved in the Travelodge case.
While some access suits have merit, Morin said “well over 90%” of suits over disability access are “drive-by” litigation filed by “mills” seeking payouts.
“Scott Johnson, he will file three to five lawsuits a day,” Morin told the Post. Plaintiffs can even use Google Earth to scope out access violations at a distance, he added.
Reform efforts failed in Sacramento
Efforts have been made to prevent these lawsuits with legislative reform, but Morin said they’ve failed at the state level because of trial lawyers’ influence in Sacramento.
“In California, the majority party is generally very antagonistic to efforts to fix this law, and the reason is very obvious: they have a sympathetic constituency,” Morin said. “There’s a financial incentive.”
Advocates have also been successful in urging legislators not to close off any opportunity to file suit over disability access.
“What Democrat legislator in the state of California is going to be seen as trying to take away disabled people’s rights?” Morin said. “They flood the hearing rooms with people in wheelchairs.”
Assembly Bill 150 would have required litigants to inform businesses of access violations at least six months before filing a lawsuit. It died in committee last year after concerns arose that the bill singled out one minority group for special barriers to enforcement of civil rights protections, and could violate state and federal civil rights laws like the ADA.
Some also argued that the bill would inappropriately place a burden on the plaintiff to specify how the access violations could be remedied.
The California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform also argued that the bill would have weakened residents’ ability to file suit against providers of inadequate facilities and delayed such legal action by six months.
“Even after six months, conditions for those residents won’t change if the operator can demonstrate they are ‘making a good faith effort’ to rectify the situation,” the group wrote. “It is an undeniable fact that many businesses put profits before people… AB 150 creates more than a set of stalling tactics for bad actors; it creates a ‘Get Out of ADA Liability Free’ Card.”
Prior to 2012, plaintiffs sent letters threatening businesses with lawsuits and demanding payment to avoid a lawsuit, Morin said.
The state Legislature changed the law to prevent these “shakedowns” by making it illegal to demand upfront payment, but the reform backfired, leading litigants to stop sending warning letters altogether and going straight to court.
But Morin said a reform to impose a notice and warning period “would just really delay the lawsuits.”
“Not all people who get those warning letters take them very seriously,” Morin said. “Our laws in this state provide a financial incentive to file these lawsuits.”
H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now pending before the Senate and would require that litigants provide written notice to business owners of access violations before filing suit.
But Morin said he’s skeptical of the bill’s potential impact in California because the Unruh Civil Rights Act would still provide financial incentive to sue over access violations.
In the last year, Johnson has filed similar lawsuits against the Hotel Avante and Hotel Vue in Mountain View and Menlo Gas in Menlo Park.
Johnson is not the only person filing these suits, though he’s known as one of the most prolific litigants. In the last two years, other litigants have sued Jeffrey’s Hamburgers in Menlo Park and Charley Noodle and Grill in Los Altos over similar access violations.
Johnson’s lawyers at the San Diego-based Center for Disability Access did not return a request for comment yesterday. Neither did the owner of Travelodge.